In the early days, the steel mills that ring Lake Michigan’s southern shore pulled in immigrants from all over the world.
That’s the way the bosses liked it.
“U.S. Steel recruited immigrants from Eastern Europe, particularly central and southern Europe because it was working employees seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” said James Lane, Indiana University Northwest professor of history emeritus. “Few Americans wanted to work in those conditions.”
Steel mills can’t be shut down because blast furnaces blaze around the clock and can't be easily switched on and off. Judge Elbert Gary, the first to run U.S. Steel, believed in manning the mill during all hours by having two 84-hour per week shifts – making for a daily 12-hour work shift for every worker – until he was persuaded to add a third, making working hours more manageable, said Lane, author of “City of the Century” and other books about Region history.
U.S. Steel and other steelmakers recruited heavily from Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. The steelmaker liked to mix antagonistic groups like Serbs and Croats to forestall unionization, reasoning they wouldn’t cooperate and work together, Lane said.
“We had relatively open immigration prior to World War I,” he said. “Fares to America were cheap and often underwritten by the steel mills.”
Today's steel industry workforce is still diverse – more so in some cases. The World Steel Association estimates women now make up as much as 21 percent of steelworkers, and their representation at mills is trending upward. Today's steelworkers are more educated and will need greater technical proficiency going forward.
"U. S. Steel employees have been among the hardest working and most talented in the industry," spokeswoman Erin DiPietro said. "While the products we make have changed over time, our focus on being a leader in the highly competitive global steel industry has not. To do so now and in the future, we will continue to develop and employ highly skilled, creative employees who are committed to working safely, focused on innovation, and dedicated to delivering world-class, value-added solutions to our customers."
In the industry's early days in Northwest Indiana, some estimates are that half the immigrants went back to their native lands after they saved up enough to buy property, but many married here or brought their family over from the old country.
When immigration dropped off from Europe after World War I, the mills started pulling in Southerners, including African-Americans. Then after World War II, when Eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain, steelmakers brought in Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, Lane said.
Over the years, steelworkers’ kids and grandkids went on to work at the mill. As recently as the 1970s, steel mill jobs were plentiful and people could get them right out of high school.
“A lot of people who went to college even worked summers at the mill,” Lane said. “It was referred to as mill scholarships because you could make enough in the summer to pay for their tuition.”
The pay was so good at the mills it was sometimes referred to as the “golden handcuffs” because it made it hard to leave, Lane said.
“It provided a generation with basically the income they needed to have a middle-class lifestyle,” he said. “The wife didn’t have to work. You could send your kids off to college and afford home ownership. When I came in 1970 it was a very blue collar area. Virtually all my students had a father or some relative who was a steelworker. It had a very blue collar flavor.”
But imports, automation and wave after wave of cutbacks weakened the steel industry across the country and in Northwest Indiana.
A slowdown in hiring led many young people to pursue alternate career paths, or get out of the Region altogether. Lake County’s population, once greater than half a million people, has fallen every year so far this decade and declined to 487,865 in 2015, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 48,000 steelworker jobs across the United States have vanished since 2000.
ArcelorMittal estimates the average age of its steelworkers is now over 50, and nearly half its workers are already eligible for retirement. It has been looking to train the next generation of employees through its Steelworker for the Future program, where job trainees complete a 2.5-year program at a local community college while interning as a mechanical or electrical technician.
Steel mill jobs are still coveted because of the high pay, and about 10,000 people apply anytime steelworker jobs open up at ArcelorMittal, said R.D. Parpart, a team leader with Steelworker for the Future, during a recent talk in Hobart. The steelmaker hires for those positions through WorkOne, the state's employment agency.
Future steelworkers need to be better trained and more highly educated since the mills operate with just a fraction of the employees they once did, Parpart said. The remaining workers must be more highly skilled because of automation. Repairing industrial robots or running a programmable logic controller for a rolling mill might be part of their jobs.
Steel mill jobs used to involve grueling labor but are now more technical in nature, Lane said.
“Mills are still not the greatest place to work,” Lane said. “But now you’re tending to machines. Now you’re on the computer doing stuff. You’re not shoveling coke into open hearth furnaces. The nature of the work has changed.”